@Panoptistry extended interview

JAMES I’m a maximalist, I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan of minimalism, I just think life in itself is quite minimal. Look out the window. I like art, whether it be a TV programme, theatre, music videos, etc., that takes the mundane and the pedestrian aspects of life and presents them in the most visually explosive way. I think art has a duty to aggrandise these aspects of life. To put them under a microscope in some sense. Cohesive for me spells out something that’s comprehensible, easily graspable and easy to digest. I like art that isn’t easy to digest because daily life is so assimilable. I want something that’s going to shock and unsettle. I’m an English Literature graduate, so it’s all kind of ‘bookie’ for me. I align with the ideas of thinkers like Artaud, Brecht and Bakhtin. People who were all about subverting society to make the truths more evident.

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” Mikhail Bakhtin

JAIME What is a man to me? A man is… I think what makes you a man is more about your behaviour. Just being a nice person, being genuine, being who you want to be, being who you are. I feel like it doesn’t necessarily matter what gender you identify as; I think it’s more about the way you behave and the way you treat other people.

JAMES I guess as a society we have, up until this point, perceived [masculinity] as being really emotionally restrained, as being socially quite minimal. I don’t think flamboyance is considered a masculine attribute. It is seen as existing outside of the domestic sphere. When I think of the book definition of masculinity I think of a restrained emotional intellectualism. And of being strong, not showing any weakness and not giving in to the flamboyant and extroverted nature that we maybe associate with the feminine.

I associate very much with being a man. Today, we’ve got a very fluid spectrum of genders that people identify with. When I wake up in the morning I feel like a man, but for me the modern man is emotionally intellectual, that’s first and foremost. We’re at a time in history where women are being brought to the forefront of conversations, so I actually think that being a man today requires a lot of undoing and a lot of introspective thought. As a man going about my normal life I go inward quite a lot and reassess how I behave in certain situations.

JAIME It’s about showing emotion. Obviously, we’ve been told for however many years that showing emotion is a sign of weakness, which I’d say links back to femininity. But I feel like showing your emotions is completely fine. We should be whoever we want to be, however we want to be, dress however we want. We’re still not where we need to be, but I think we will get there. Hopefully.

JAMES Toxic masculinity is, I guess, a set of norms and values associated with what fundamentally a man should be. I’m personally very uncomfortable with the that term. We’ve been overwhelmed with hypermasculinity and maybe haven’t been able to express ourselves in the ways we wish because “toxic masculinity” is so systemic. But because it’s something passed on from one generation to the next, I sometimes feel sorry for the people that have that stance on life. My dad’s generation were brought up with that outlook and the reason they look at the world that way is because they know no different. They didn’t have the kind of role models that we have today to expand their world view. Whenever I talk about masculinity, I try to avoid the term toxic, it’s projecting the same ‘them and us’ that LGBTQI experience on a day-to-day basis towards cisgender, straight people. We fought a long time for our own voices and community, but I don’t think we should continue to do that at the expense of othering what for so long has been considered the norm.

JAIME The response has been a mixture of both good and bad. It’s been mainly positive. It’s not that my upbringing was negative, though coming from Birmingham the people that I used to chill with would be seen as “road men”, “ghetto” and “gangsta”. The way I dress, speak and act has changed, but it’s still me. So, when I do put up these photos, or people see the work I’m a part of I think they can find it hard to understand. Like ‘oh, this seems like such a dramatic change.’ The ones who stay are the ones who are clearly meant to be in my life. We’re in 2020 and the world is changing, it always does. If you have to lose friends to be authentic then so be it.

JAMES Fortunately, growing up I was mostly applauded for being quite flamboyant and very artistic. People have definitely been shocked- although I think it’s less to do with the display of effeminacy and more to do with the political undertones. The viewpoints that I take on things are a bit destabilising.

JAIME When I first came out to some of my family, they weren’t very accepting. There was this whole ‘read the bible’ and ‘it’s a phase you’re going through.’ But recently when I have been posting my work they respond differently like, ‘oh my gosh Jaime, I love this.’

‘This is amazing.’

‘This is you.’

‘You used to dress like this when you were younger.’

The fact that they care shows that they are changed from [their] previous thought process. There’s an acceptance that wasn’t there before.

Sometimes, I’ll get messages saying I’m not the same as I used to be. It’s not necessarily that I’m not the same, it’s just a different part of me. I’m still the same person, it’s just part of me that I want to explore.

JAMES I’ve taken it for granted being a white man, that I am going to go into viewing art with one particular lens. Certainly, over the past few years, I’ve had to undo a lot of those preconceptions and broaden my understanding and influences.

Books are my thing, I’m an avid reader in my normal non-corona life. One thing I’ve certainly done is watch the arthouse films I’ve been meaning to for ages. Yorgos Lanthimos’ films: The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Dogtooth. I found Dogtooth, one of his first films, so unsettling that I didn’t enjoy it, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster I loved. I watched Melancholia and other Lars Von Trier films too. I’ve unlocked creativity by watching a lot of artistic content that in normal life I wouldn’t have the concentration for. However, in lockdown there is an increased pressure to be hyper-productive. Capitalism has supposedly ground to a halt, although not entirely. Yet, people feel under an immense pressure to be more productive, to create more. Part of that is organic as we’ve got more mental space, yet on the other hand the same pressures we experienced in day-to-day life have been intensified. Now we’ve got this dreamlike, furloughed period from life we’re expected to finish our books, produce a home documentary, write a script and I sometimes feel a little bit impeded by that. Creativity works best in an undisciplined way.

JAIME My role models growing up, male wise I find that hard to answer. Now as an adult I might be able to answer better. Females I’d say people like Beyoncé, Whitney, Grace Jones, Rihanna. It has mainly been pop stars. In terms of influencing me as a performer and as a person. Performing can be like dressing up and making art. The way they are as people and their work ethic has definitely influenced me and developed much about me as a person.

JAMES I was always very heavily influenced by female popstars without a doubt. And I’m not a particularly musical person, and yet the likes of the Gagas, the Whitneys, the Beyoncés and their representation of an extreme form of femininity always really inspired me. Things have dramatically shifted in my adulthood, as I’ve been exposed to so many interesting and inspiring male role models across all disciplines. Alexander McQueen is an all-time favourite of mine and photographers like David LaChappelle. I love Stanley Kubrick. His films are amazing. And equally there are also incredible female role models; Melina Matsoukas. People in popular culture like the Rihannas, there is something about powerful females that I think a lot of gay men are particularly attracted to. I don’t know if you’ve read Straight Jacket the book, it has a whole chapter on the relationship that exists between gay men and powerful female popstars. When I watch Homecoming for example, obviously realise I will never be able to do that, but I live my fantasy through Beyoncé and feel so empowered by that. There’s something quite exciting, in a male dominated world, about a woman who is so unapologetic.

JAIME Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Burna Boys album African Giant and Solange’s album When I Get Home are artworks that changed me. Visually and musically they have boosted me to explore my masculinity, femininity, race. They made me feel so confident, almost invincible. No matter what anybody says to me, it won’t knock me down – in an empowered rather than arrogant, cocky or delusional way.

JAMES The art that changed me? Besides my love of sci fi, I’m such a sci-figeek, I would say that film has changed me. One that has stuck with me to this day is Moonlight- one of the best films of the last decade. It tells a story that has never been told in that format before. And yet, that story has been played out a million times in society. Anything produced by Alexander McQueen; he represents the dream in a sense, a poor, working-class, East End boy that went on to produce the most incredible, Avante-Garde work. It gives me shivers when I watch his documentary and see everything he went through and the extensive research that went into every single one of his projects, it just blows my mind. And we are die-hard Beyoncè fans, that’s always had an impact on everything. Particularly the later instalment of her work. Michael Jackson got to a point where he was so big he didn’t have to worry about the ramifications of his work anymore. Beyoncè is now at a point where she can produce work that is on her own terms, she doesn’t have to pander to the pop world and she can create something that speaks for and to a community and I really love that. And the book that has shifted everything for me is Salvage the Bone by Jesmyn Ward. There’s something so amazing about making an invisible community visible and how as a writer she does that by paying such attention to, not to be gross, but bodily fluids. It’s very scatological. It blew my mind. The world is made up of average people. Everyday life is mundane and writers like Jesmyn Ward have a way of taking a screenshot of that life and finding the epic in it.

“The possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.” Sun Ra

JAMES Sometimes the references in my work are conscious and sometimes they’re not. It’s a product of many years absorbing things and then allowing that to come out creatively. In reference to stuff like ballroom culture, religious iconography, etc., I’m taking things that are not societally reviewed positively and recontextualising them by placing them with things that are. By combining them I try to create something that elevates its status. We did a home-shoot that references Egyptian culture. Ancient Egypt represents a great moment in black history, black majesty and power and there’s a number of artists that have gone back into Egyptology to express black ideas. Sun Ra I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, you should have a look. He’s incredible. So for that particular shoot we use Egyptian iconography and place the subject of the black male at an elevated status, drawing attention to the position the black male holds in the contemporary media. In the same way, presenting a male subject in an overtly feminine way is so unsettling. I quite enjoy the disjunction between what you see and what you think. It’s like, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe we’re seeing this man with these gorgeous, satin opera gloves with this really vibrant make-up.’ It’s disquieting to those that have never challenged their gender identity. It champions the masculine and the feminine that I think all of us have.

JAMES You always get trolls sending messages, but I ignore those. What I do sometimes struggle with is that people construe a maximalist aesthetic as being a tacky, or a too eclectic. And if you go along the post-modern line of thought, collage is seen as a lower art form than fine art painting, for example. I’ve had comments before saying it’s a bit too much colour. I only have to look outside to see a dun colour palette, art is an opportunity to augment, build and make bigger. That’s where I’ve had the most resistance. It’s always ‘tone it down,’ ‘make it less in your face,’ ‘make it more palatable’. I get so bored of that. There’s so much of that. A lot of that work is still good, but it doesn’t have the same shock value that I really like.

JAMES Jaime is my muse for a number of reasons. He is my biggest cheerleader and will never dim my ideas down. I’m a very insecure person, believe it or not, and Jaime has to constantly wrestle with that. In terms of my output of art and the stuff that I’m passionate about I would’ve done so much more if it had not been for my insecurities and self-questioning. He’s also my muse because he’s an interesting subject in as much as he’s undergone such a transformation in his life. He came from a background, a place where masculinity was much more rigid than my own experience, to London and was able to flourish and really get in touch with his true sense. Now I think he’s at the peak of self-expression and that journey is amazing. I love it.

JAIME Insecurities creep in. There’ll be shots that I do not like. Naturally, we see ourselves daily, so we tend to criticise ourselves. It is quite hard, but I go back to these powerful pop-stars and think what their mindset would be on their shoots, and their reaction to seeing pictures of themselves.’ At the same time, I’m confident enough as a person to love myself and if there is a bit of flab there, there it is. I think you must learn to deal with it really. Friends from primary school who I didn’t really speak to as much have reached out. They seem to appreciate that I’m being authentic, true to myself and that is more rewarding than just doing it for me. It’s nice to think there will always be someone out there who is going to be touched by your work. I don’t feel like I’m just in it for me, I feel like I’m doing it for other people, those people who don’t have a voice or feel like they can express themselves freely like that. They will find that voice, hopefully.

JAMES People experience different levels of discrimination in society as we know. My perspective on things might be optimistic, but it might not necessarily be so for other people. I also think living in London is particular, a kind of bubble. People are more accepting of being outside of the box. In the world at large we’ve definitely not got to a point where everyone has the privilege of expressing themselves in the way they want. So it’s two-fold.

JAIME Yeah, things are getting better. But when I go home to Birmingham it’s so different. I always feel like I have to dress down. There’s a pressure to not act differently. I might have to showcase a part of myself that I don’t necessarily want to in that particular moment. Although it’s getting better slowly, we’ve still got a long way to go.

JAMES The first thing I’m doing when I get out of lockdown is to order a McDonalds? No, the first thing I’m dying to do is get a haircut, because we attempted a haircut yesterday, hence why I’m wearing a cap. It was a bit botched. So that will physically be the first thing I do. And give my family a big hug, because I miss them a lot.

JAIME First thing post lockdown? See family and friends. It’s nice to be around different people, different energies.